NEW GIMMICKS SOUGHT TO SELL NOODLES

Ramen food courts seek to slake slurping throngs

Ramen eateries in Tokyo have started banding together in food court-style complexes in response to red-hot competition.

One such complex, which comprises seven noodle houses, made its debut under a bridge near JR Shinagawa Station in Tokyo in December. That was followed by another complex of six noodle shops at the Aqua City complex in the Odaiba waterfront district on Jan. 12.

Food industry sources said ramen eateries are facing an era of intense competition that has driven some long-established shops in the heart of the capital out of business.

The seven in Shinagawa’s Shinatatsu ramen are run by owners from outside Tokyo, including from Hokkaido and Kanagawa prefectures, while those in Aqua City’s Ramen Kokugikan hail from Niigata, Hiroshima and Fukuoka prefectures.

Kokugikan, named after sumo’s indoor arena in Tokyo, stands out because it will be in business for only three years, with all six shops to be replaced every six months. As a result, 36 shops will spend time there regardless of their popularity or business results.

Hiroki Imai, director of Kokugikan, said the reason the ramen houses will be changed at half year intervals is that more and more people want to try a range of tastes, rather than stick with one particular ramen shop.

Imai said some people asked him why ramen was chosen when the project was first being planned. After all, ramen complexes are nothing new in the Tokyo area.

Imai said he had other fare in mind but picked ramen because he believes it attracts more people than any other food.

About 37,000 people visited Kokugikan during the first week, and Imai hopes that number will hit 750,000, along with sales of 600 million yen, in its first business year.

But competition has been harsh for some of the more established businesses. Katsumaru, a ramen house in Tokyo that has branches in food courts in various parts of the country, pulled out of Menkui Okoku (Noodle-Eating Kingdom) in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward eight months after its establishment in December 2003.

Situated in a crowded street near Shibuya Station, Katsumaru anticipated 1,000 customers daily, but the number totaled less than 400 right from its opening.

President Katsuhiko Goto said the eatery’s inconspicuous sign and dim lighting — more appropriate for a cafe — put off families.

“The first six months are crucial for (ramen food courts),” Goto said. “If (things) do not turn out well, (we must) pull out.”

With that thought in mind, he decided to sign a one-year contract when he opened a branch in a ramen food court in Aomori Prefecture last February, according to Goto.

But some other businesses have been regaining their strength over time.

The Shin-Yokohama Ramen Hakubutsukan (Shinyokohama Ramen Museum), a trailblazer in ramen food courts, is now in its 11th year.